As India heads into the 2024 general elections, it will have to be very watchful of its strategic, tactical and territorial interests
In the April of 2020, the People’s Liberation Army of China transgressed across a broad swathe of Indian territory across what is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in violation of an architecture of border management covenants put in place since 1993. These agreements are the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement, 1993, the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures, 1996, the Protocol for the Implementation of Military Confidence Building Measures, 2005, and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, 2012. On June 15, 2020, the worst clash since 1975 took place between the Indian Army and the PLA at Galwan that is characterised as Patrolling Point-14 in Indian military parlance.
After three years and 18 rounds of military-to-military talks and numerous other meetings with the Chinese leadership, the position on the LAC can be best summed up by quoting from a paper written by the Senior Superintendent of Police, Leh. The paper entitled “Security Issues Pertaining to Unfenced Land Border” was ostensibly written for presentation to the all-India director generals of police/inspector generals of police conference held in New Delhi on January 20-22, 2023. Two paragraphs in the paper read as follows;
“Presently, there are 65 PPs (patrolling points) starting from Karakoram pass to Chumur which are to be patrolled regularly by the ISF (Indian security forces). Out of 65 PPs, our presence is lost in 26 PPs (i.e., PP no. 5-17, 24-32, 37, 51, 52, 62) due to restrictive or no patrolling by the ISFs. Later on, China, forces us to accept the fact that, as, such areas have not seen the presence of ISFs or civilians since long, the Chinese were present in these areas. This leads to a shift in the border under control of ISFs towards Indian side and a “buffer zone” is created in all such pockets which ultimately leads to loss of control over these areas by India. This tactic of PLA to grab land inch by inch is known as “salami slicing. The PLA has taken advantage of the buffer areas in the de-escalation talks by placing their best of cameras on the highest peaks and monitoring the movement of our forces. This peculiar situation can be seen at Black Top, Helmet Top mountains in Chushul, at Demchok, at Kakjung, at Gogra hills in Hot Springs and at Depsang plains near Chip Chap river. With the ‘salami slicing’ strategy they object to our movement even in the buffer zone, claiming it to be ‘their’ area of operation and then further ask us to move back to create more ‘buffer’ areas. This situation has happened with Y-nallah at Galwan where we were forced to move back to Camp 01 without dominating the higher posts overseeing Y-nallah; at Chushul the BPM hut near the airfield has become the de-facto LAC and Nilung Nallah at Demchok has been restricted.”
If the above stated assessment is correct, then notwithstanding all the bluster and the years spent ducking a discussion on China in Parliament as well as blocking questions on the LAC by resorting to the rather ambiguous national security rule 41 (XXI) in Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha and the analogous rule in the Rajya Sabha, India does not seem to have come off very well from this confrontation. For loss of access to 25 patrolling points by the certain assessment translates into a loss of 2,000 square kilometres of sovereign Indian territory if not more.
On the back of all these developments there was a bilateral between the Indian and Chinese defence ministers on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) defence ministers’ meeting in New Delhi on April 28, 2023. The fact that the meeting did not yield anything either substantive and much less productive is evident from the different narratives put out by the Indian and Chinese sides, respectively. While the Indian defence minister reportedly told his Chinese counterpart “that development of relations between India and China is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquility at the borders", he further reiterated “that violation of existing agreements has eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations and disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation".
The Chinese defence minister, Li Shangfu, was on a different tack altogether. According to a news report published in the Global Times, “Li said that common interest between China and India prevails over discrepancies, thus both sides should view bilateral ties and their development in a comprehensive, long-term and strategic way. He said two countries should bring the border situation under normalised management and to jointly enhance mutual trust between the two armies, according to a readout published by China's ministry of national defence on Friday”.
It is, therefore, quite evident that both the countries view the prevailing situation on the border very differently. From the Chinese response it is more than evident that they have absolutely no intention of rolling back their transgressions that they had carried out in the April of 2020.
The larger geostrategic context is also changing. When the Sino-Indian border standoff commenced in the April of 2020, there was no conflict in Europe. China was at that point in time being castigated (perhaps rightly) for keeping the Covid-19 pandemic under the wraps before it just exploded in everyone’s face.
However, today, with the Western Alliance’s collective energies being sucked by the endemic conflict in Ukraine that is now entering its twenty-seventh month the United States and its allies are also recalibrating their position qua China.
In a recent deposition before the House Appropriations Committee of the United States Congress, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated, “War with Russia or China is neither inevitable nor imminent.” He, however, caveated his remarks describing Beijing’s actions as “moving it down the path towards confrontation and potential conflict with its neighbours and possibly the United States”.
This military assessment is in tune with broader political approach of the Biden Administration to ensure that the Moscow-Bejing axis does not play to the broader detriment of US interests globally. The recent Tehran-Riyadh détente brokered by China being a case in point. While the US is compelled to play hardball with Russia, it has defined the economic and strategic arenas where China needs to be circumscribed.
India, therefore, would do well to evaluate the shifting sands of geopolitics given that China is negotiating fairly hard to end its border dispute with Bhutan and is generally fairly well-ensconced in South Asia that should legitimately be India’s natural sphere of influence in keeping with the Monroe doctrine. As India heads into the 2024 general elections, it will have to be very watchful of its strategic, tactical and territorial interests.